As he lay ill on his deathbed in Egypt, he recounted many of the significant moments of his life and recognized a consistent theme running through them all. God was with him every step of the way.
At his birth, striving with his twin brother in the womb, the Lord was with him. When he found himself on the run, due to his own sinful deception, the Lord looked over him. While he served his unfair, idolatrous father-in-law, the Lord blessed and provided for him. When he feared for his life, believing that his brother was seeking vengeance against him, the Lord comforted and protected him. As he journeyed through the lands of hostile nations, the Lord guarded him. When famine struck the land, and all looked hopeless, the Lord led him to Egypt where he and all who were his found provision.
The Lord had provided him with many children; had rescued his youngest from a murderous plot; orchestrated an incredible plan to save his entire family from starvation; and multiplied his descendants – all according to promise (Gen 28:15; 35:3).
He had benefited from the Lord’s covenant faithfulness his entire life, and he knew it. These moments of reflection at the end of his life led him to well up with thankful praise.
As Jacob considered these things, growing still weaker, he called for his son Joseph, and his grandsons Manasseh and Ephraim, so that he could pronounce one last blessing upon their heads before he passed on to be with his Lord.
As Jacob lay his hand on the head of Ephraim, he said these words:
Genesis 48:15-16 And he blessed Joseph and said, “The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys; and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.”
As Jacob considered all that the Lord had done for him, providing, protecting and guiding him, through all aspects of his life, the best description he could muster to describe how the Lord had related to him was this – “the God who has been my shepherd.”
Throughout his entire life Jacob had experienced the tender, compassionate, merciful watchcare of God. The Lord had guarded him from danger, and guided him through trouble. He taught him, corrected him, and matured him. He saved him from others, and even saved him from himself.
Jacob could look back across his life and see that the Lord lovingly led him like a shepherd leads a sheep. That’s what he wanted to communicate to this son Joseph and to his grandchildren in his dying moments. The Lord had been his shepherd, and he could be their shepherd too.
The Lord as Shepherd
“Shepherd” is the divinely inspired metaphor which the Lord has chosen for himself. When the Lord would have his people reflect upon his loving watchcare over them, he would have their minds wander to that all familiar ancient near eastern sight of a shepherd leading his flock of sheep.
As a shepherd oversees his flock, he must provide for them, protect them, and give them rest. He must lead his sheep to life-giving water, and to green pastures sufficient to satisfy their hunger. The shepherd must protect his sheep from danger; rescue them when they are under attack; recover them when they have wandered; and heal them when they are hurt.
You probably did not get too far into that description before you began to see how “shepherd” is an apt metaphor to describe how God relates to his people. This metaphor was not lost on King David either. In one of the best known, and most quoted Psalms, he wrote:
Psalm 23:1-6 A Psalm of David. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
Like Jacob, David recognized that the Lord was his provider, protector, and guide. He brought rest and satisfaction to David’s soul. He led David to righteous living, and through earthly struggles. David’s knowledge that the Lord was with him, to protect him from his enemies, and to correct him from his own sin, brought immense comfort. So safe and secure was David in the Lord’s care that David could face, not only evil, but even death without fear. Penning these things under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, David could think of one perfect metaphor to encapsulate all that the Lord had been to him. And what was it? The LORD is my shepherd.
Having considered some of the characteristics of the shepherd, let’s now consider the nature of the sheep.
Contrary to popular belief, sheep are not dumb. In fact, as flock animals, sheep excel in social intelligence. Sheep can remember the faces of dozens of their flock-mates over the span of years. They have a keen sense of emotional intelligence which enables them to both express emotion and read the emotion of their fellow sheep. This helps them build necessary relationships of mutual cooperation and even friendship. The emotional sensitivity, social intelligence and relational nature of sheep is also what enables them to recognize, and bond with a shepherd; an essential relationship when you consider the sheep’s need to be led.
So then, whence comes the unfair stereotype that sheep are stupid? It’s the sheep’s vulnerability, flocking instincts, and need to be led that are often confused with a lack of intelligence.
Sheep are basically defenseless. Their only defense against predators is either to flock together, thus providing more eyes and ears against potential dangers, or to flee. Sometimes when a frightened sheep flees and becomes separated from the flock, they become disoriented and lost. In such cases, they are dependent upon a shepherd to seek them out and bring them back to the fold.
Sheep are also relatively nearsighted. They have very good peripheral vision, giving them a 300° view of their surroundings. However, the area directly in front of them is less acute. In fact, they can only see clearly for about twenty feet ahead and that with very poor depth perception. Since they can’t see great distances, it just makes sense to follow the flock, or to keep their eyes on a shepherd who has a better sense of where they are going.
Far from evidence of a lack of intelligence, these natural instincts to flock or flee seem the smartest options when you consider the obvious vulnerabilities of the sheep. Also, following close behind a shepherd, or the rest of the flock seems quite clever considering their own inability to see far ahead. A recognition of one’s own weakness; the benefits of mutual dependence; and the wisdom of following those who have better vision sounds more like intelligence than stupidity, doesn’t it?
The Shepherd and His Sheep
However, from the above, you can understand why sheep need a shepherd. The shepherd provides vision, where the sheep cannot see. He provides protection, where the sheep cannot defend themselves. The shepherd provides rescue when the sheep find themselves in danger. The shepherd provides solace when the sheep are frightened. The shepherd provides healing when a sheep is injured. A shepherd leads the sheep to fresh water, and green pastures where the sheep can find sustenance and rest.
The relationship of the shepherd to the sheep is one of compassionate watchcare from the shepherd, and necessary dependence from the sheep. It’s for this reason that sheep develop a bond with their shepherd. The sheep can recognize the voice of their shepherd, and even come when called by name. A flock has a sense of safety and belonging when with their shepherd, and unease and distress when separated from him.
The nature of sheep means that they are most likely to thrive when they have a caring shepherd overseeing them.
Who Are the Sheep?
If God is the divine shepherd, then who are the sheep? In the context of the Old Testament, as already represented by Jacob and David, God’s flock consisted of his chosen people, the Jews. This shepherd/sheep relationship was a frequent meditation of the Psalmists:
Psalm 79:13 But we your people, the sheep of your pasture, will give thanks to you forever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise.
Psalm 95:7 For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand. Today, if you hear his voice,
Psalm 100:3 Know that the LORD, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
The Jews were God’s covenant people. As such, they were beneficiaries of his steadfast, covenant love. He was committed to them as their provider, protector and guide. As Paul would later say, “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen. (Romans 9:4-5)”
This special, covenant relationship meant that the Jews were uniquely the sheep of God’s pasture and the recipients of his loving shepherd-like watchcare. It was to the privileges of this special relationship that the Psalmists appealed when they felt abandoned by God:
Psalm 74:1-2 A Maskil of Asaph. O God, why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture? Remember your congregation, which you have purchased of old, which you have redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage! Remember Mount Zion, where you have dwelt.
What we learn from this is that when the Lord commits himself to a covenant relationship, he commits himself to love and care for his people like a shepherd cares for his sheep. He provides, protects and guides. He leads, corrects, and recovers. He loves, relates, and satisfies. Consequently, those under his watchcare experience comfort, security, and rest, along with a host of other benefits.
To summarize, the sheep are God’s covenant people. They are those with whom the Lord has entered a special relationship featuring a unique love and watchcare. As we will see clearly a little bit later, God’s flock would eventually be comprised, not of Jews only, but of all who would follow God’s Son. Jews and Gentiles alike would become sheep of God’s pasture, through the New Covenant.
The Shepherd’s Under-Shepherds
The scripture is clear that God is shepherd over his covenant people. What is also clear and quite surprising, is that over time the Lord would eventually call men to join him in his shepherding work. He would delegate the task of providing loving oversight over his people to faithful men. In other words, the divine shepherd would call earthly “under-shepherds” to be faithful stewards over his flock.
Consider the case of Moses.
After Pharaoh ordered the death of Hebrew male infants, a Levite woman found herself pregnant with a baby boy. After hiding him for three months, she couldn’t conceal him any longer. In a desperate attempt to save his life, she placed him in a basket it and sent him adrift upon a river. In God’s providence, the daughter of Pharaoh found the child, had compassion upon him and raised him as her own. She named him Moses.
Although raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses understood his identity as a Jew. One day when he saw one of his fellow Jews being beaten by an Egyptian, Moses stepped in and defended the man, ultimately killing the aggressor. When his actions were found out, he fled Egypt for the land of Midian.
It is here that we begin to see God’s work of preparing Moses to become a leader, protector and guide to his people. In other words, the Lord began to train Moses as an under-shepherd – one who would be charged with the stewardship of God’s flock.
Take a look at the first event which scripture records in Moses’ life after he fled from Egypt:
Exodus 2:15-17 When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and stayed in the land of Midian. And he sat down by a well. Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew water and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock. The shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and saved them, and watered their flock.
In this first vignette we find Moses not only fighting off aggressive, compassionless shepherds, but then turning and himself doing the work of a caring shepherd as he supplied water for the flocks of Jethro. Moses would eventually marry the daughter of Jethro, the priest of Midian and remain in that land. Meanwhile, the situation for the Jews in Egypt would become increasingly dire. The Bible records:
Exodus 2:23-25 During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel–and God knew.
Moved by the cry of his people, the Lord set in motion a plan to rescue them from slavery in Egypt. This plan would include entrusting Moses with the task of leading them to freedom. Take a look at where we find Moses when the Lord calls him to return to Egypt to rescue his fellow Jews:
Exodus 3:1-2 Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed.
Moses had gone from a stately life in Egypt, to the shepherd’s life in Midian. From his first moments at the well in Midian, to the wilderness in Horeb, the Lord was training Moses as a keeper of sheep and preparing him for a much greater calling.
The lessons Moses learned as the provider, protector and guide to his father-in-law’s flock would be put to the test when the Lord called him to go back to Egypt and lead God’s covenant people out, just like a shepherd might lead his sheep.
If it wasn’t clear to Moses at this point that the Lord was calling him to shepherd his people, it would become abundantly clear after what we see the Lord do next.
Exodus 4:1-5 Then Moses answered, “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you.'” The LORD said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A staff.” And he said, “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent, and Moses ran from it. But the LORD said to Moses, “Put out your hand and catch it by the tail”–so he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand– “that they may believe that the LORD, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.”
Moses, as a shepherd of sheep, carried with him a hooked staff. This staff was used to manage the sheep. He could use it to guide, catch, and recover sheep, while also employing it as a weapon against predators.
When Moses resisted God’s call to go and rescue his people, the Lord chose to illustrate his power and presence by performing a miracle with Moses’ staff. From that point on, the shepherd’s staff of Moses served as a reminder to him of God’s presence, and a sign to others of Moses’ peculiar calling.
Consider the focus on Moses’ shepherd’s staff as he set out for Egypt:
Exodus 4:17-20 And take in your hand this staff, with which you shall do the signs.” Moses went back to Jethro his father-in-law and said to him, “Please let me go back to my brothers in Egypt to see whether they are still alive.” And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.” And the LORD said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who were seeking your life are dead.” So Moses took his wife and his sons and had them ride on a donkey, and went back to the land of Egypt. And Moses took the staff of God in his hand.
The Lord went to great lengths to teach Moses that the role he was called to play over God’s covenant people was that of a shepherd to sheep. The Lord was the ultimate shepherd to be sure, but he was calling Moses as an under-shepherd. He would be entrusted with the Lord’s flock and would be expected to be a faithful steward over them.
The rest of the story is very familiar. Moses returns to Egypt and demands the release of God’s people. He does miracles before Pharaoh and the people (his shepherd’s staff featuring prominently), but is repeatedly rebuffed by Pharaoh. In the end, the Lord brings the death of the first-born, and institutes the Passover. Finally, Pharaoh reluctantly lets the people go, only to later pursue them with the intent of enslaving them once more.
You can picture the masses of people fleeing Egypt with Moses before them. With staff in hand, he led the flock of God’s covenant people away from danger, through tumultuous waters, through the wilderness and ultimately to the mount of God at Sinai. Along the way and afterward, Moses would find himself responsible for protecting the people from enemies, providing food and water for their survival, and guiding them in the direction the Lord would have them go.
The potent image of Moses leading the people out of Egypt with staff in hand, and its obvious similarities to a shepherd and sheep, was not lost on the Psalmists:
Psalm 77:20 You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
Psalm 78:52-53 Then he led out his people like sheep and guided them in the wilderness like a flock. He led them in safety, so that they were not afraid, but the sea overwhelmed their enemies.
Along the way, Moses would learn that in some ways shepherding people was far more difficult than shepherding sheep. He would have to deal with their constant complaining, their desire to return to Egypt, their lust for idols, and their resistance to his leadership. But Moses would also develop a compassionate care for the people. His care for them would drive him to intercede on their behalf, even suggesting a willingness to personally sacrifice for their survival (Exodus 32).
So, did Moses come to understand his role over God’s people as that of an under-shepherd over the Lord’s flock? Certainly. As Moses grew older, he knew that the Lord would have to raise up another leader to guide the people. Listen to Moses as he prays to the Lord, in his old age, for the people:
Numbers 27:15-17 Moses spoke to the LORD, saying, “Let the LORD, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of the LORD may not be as sheep that have no shepherd.”
As Moses faced the end of his life, his compassionate care for the people led him to once more intercede on their behalf. This time, his prayer was driven by the concern that after his passing, the people would be like “sheep that have no shepherd.” Moses knew exactly what his relationship was to God’s covenant people. He was a faithful shepherd, a steward over God’s flock, serving as the Shepherd of Israel’s under-shepherd. Consider how the Lord’ responded to Moses:
Numbers 27:18-20 So the LORD said to Moses, “Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him. Make him stand before Eleazar the priest and all the congregation, and you shall commission him in their sight. You shall invest him with some of your authority, that all the congregation of the people of Israel may obey.
Moses was a meek, loving, compassionate, sacrificial shepherd who represented the authority of the Lord to the people. In this passage we see him symbolically passing that same role and authority on to Joshua. The Lord’s plan to use human instrumentality to shepherd his people continued.
After the death of Joshua, the Lord appointed a consecutive line of judges to lead his people. Look at how the Lord described the role of these judges in speaking to David when he inquired to the Lord regarding the building of a temple:
1 Chronicles 17:6 In all places where I have moved with all Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”‘
Like Joshua and Moses before them, the Lord’s appointed judges were also called to be shepherds over God’s flock.
As time went on, the people of Israel became discontented with their theocratic arrangement and desired an earthly king to rule over them just like the other nations. The Lord warned the people that the king they desired would be anything but a loving ruler. He would take the best of their children and make them his servants. He would take the best of their land and give it to his own men. He would demand a percentage of their crops, and livestock; and exact other taxes. Yet, after issuing these warnings to the people, they still demanded a king and so the Lord gave them what they wanted in a man named Saul.
Saul was an unmitigated disaster. He was a sinful, rebellious King (just as the Lord had warned). Unlike the shepherd-rulers of the past, Saul did not see God’s people as a flock to be cared for, but as a resource to be exploited. Instead of serving the people, he used the people to serve his own interests.
After the failures of King Saul, the Lord was merciful to Israel and arranged for the anointing of a new king. This new king would be different from Saul. He would be a king “after God’s own heart” and not a king chosen according to the people’s lusts. This king would lovingly provide, protect and guide the people.
With these characteristics in mind, what do you think we might find this future king doing when the Lord chooses to anoint him? The answer is found in 1 Samuel 16 where we find Samuel asking Jesse if he has any other sons besides those whom the Lord had rejected as candidates for kingship.
1 Samuel 16:11 Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and get him, for we will not sit down till he comes here.”
David – The Shepherd-King
David, the future king, was a shepherd boy. Like Moses, he had learned what it meant to provide for, protect and guide a flock. He knew what it was to bind the wounded; recover the wandering; and nurture the sick. He knew firsthand what it was to have a flock dependent upon him for food, water, and safety. He knew the necessity of tender care and relationship with the sheep. He knew what it was to pick up a slingshot and endanger himself in order to protect the sheep from predators. He knew the sacrifices a shepherd had to make for the well-being of his flock. This was exactly the training the Lord wanted for his king. This king would truly be a king “after [God’s] own heart. (1 Sam 13:14)”
As the Psalmist says of the Lord’s choice of David:
Psalm 78:70-72 He chose David his servant and took him from the sheepfolds; from following the nursing ewes he brought him to shepherd Jacob his people, Israel his inheritance. With upright heart he shepherded them and guided them with his skillful hand.
Although King David saw personal lapses, even falling into serious sin, he maintained the heart of a shepherd toward God’s people. We see this heart in a very unfortunate account in 2 Samuel 24. In this situation, David has sinned against the Lord and, as a consequence, has seen judgment unleashed upon the people. As David saw the people suffering around him, he cried out to the Lord:
2 Samuel 24:17 Then David spoke to the LORD when he saw the angel who was striking the people, and said, “Behold, I have sinned, and I have done wickedly. But these sheep, what have they done? Please let your hand be against me and against my father’s house.”
This compassionate, self-sacrificial spirit of David was a spirit forged among the flocks. He brought his shepherd’s heart from the fields and into his throne room. In other words, David’s experience as a shepherd boy prepared him to serve as a faithful under-shepherd in service to the great Shepherd of Israel.
Despite David’s failures, his reign as shepherd-king became the archetype for every faithful king thereafter. If a future king were to please the Lord as he ruled over God’s people, he too would have to possess the tender heart of a shepherd. In fact, the Lord promised David that one day the pattern established by his reign as shepherd-king would be perfectly fulfilled by one of his descendants. That future Davidic King would be the perfect shepherd, who would lead the flock of God’s covenant people exactly the way the divine shepherd would have him. But, the fulfillment of that promise would have to wait.
Wolves in Shepherds Clothing
Sadly, the history of Israel following David would not be a history of faithful shepherds caring for God’s flock. Instead, it would be a history of rebellion, corruption and idolatry.
The Kingdom of Israel would eventually be divided into northern and southern kingdoms under the reign of David’s son Solomon. Although both kingdoms would barrel obstinately toward God’s judgment via foreign captivity, it was the northern kingdom which would first meet its fate, by the hands of the Assyrians.
Despite the fact that the southern kingdom of Judah saw sparks of religious revival, they apparently learned very little from God’s judgment upon their brothers in the north, and so they too would face their own captivity, but by the hands of the Babylonians.
During these times of Israel’s religious apostasy, social injustice, and moral depravity, God used some faithful prophets to confront his people with their sin, call them to repentance, and warn of impending judgment. Through these prophets, we learn that much of the blame for Israel’s fall was to be laid at the feet of their religious and civil leaders. Or, as God through Jeremiah calls them – their shepherds.
Consider how the Lord, through Jeremiah began to indict the leaders in Jerusalem as he told him to proclaim:
Jeremiah 13:20 “Lift up your eyes and see those who come from the north. Where is the flock that was given you, your beautiful flock?
The Lord speaks to the civil and religious leaders in Jerusalem as a master might speak to his stewards, or as a shepherd might speak to his under-shepherds. These leaders were given charge over God’s flock, to provide, protect and guide, just as the Lord would, yet they abdicated those responsibilities and now faced a reckoning. The shepherds of Israel were charged with leading God’s people into covenant faithfulness but instead, Jeremiah writes:
Jeremiah 10:21 For the shepherds are stupid and do not inquire of the LORD; therefore they have not prospered, and all their flock is scattered.
The Lord’s indictment of the shepherds continues:
Jeremiah 23:1-4 “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” declares the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who care for my people: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the LORD. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the LORD.
The tragedy of the fall of Israel is that the responsibility for their demise did not come by the hand of foreign powers, but by their own leaders. To retain the metaphor, the sheep were not suffering due to predators or thieves, but by the hands of their own shepherds. There was no tender care; no gentle guidance; no compassionate provision; and no vigilant protection. Instead, the shepherds themselves scattered the flock by their wicked leadership, and sinful neglect. (Jer 50:6)
As is apparent by the seriousness of these indictments, the Lord does not take such sin lightly. The personal guilt of these men was compounded by the fact that they were entrusted with the Lord’s people. Such spiritual responsibility carries tremendous accountability, and the abdication of it brings great judgment.
These men were called to exemplify godliness and embody the shepherd-like care of God himself. They were to devote themselves to the advancement of the people’s spiritual health, physical protection, and material provision. They were to be moved with compassion toward the needs of the people, just like Moses and David. They were to give themselves to intercession, pleading the case of the people before God. They were to exemplify godliness, thus leading the people into righteous living. Like good shepherds, they were to be willing to make personal sacrifices for the wellbeing of the Lord’s flock.
Yet, instead of being tender, compassionate under-shepherds over the flock which belonged to God, they made themselves “lords of the flock” and dominated the sheep for their own selfish gain. The misuse of their office, their misrepresentation of God, and their mistreatment of God’s sheep would bring inescapable judgment.
Jeremiah 25:34-37 “Wail, you shepherds, and cry out, and roll in ashes, you lords of the flock, for the days of your slaughter and dispersion have come, and you shall fall like a choice vessel. No refuge will remain for the shepherds, nor escape for the lords of the flock. A voice–the cry of the shepherds, and the wail of the lords of the flock! For the LORD is laying waste their pasture, and the peaceful folds are devastated because of the fierce anger of the LORD.
The prophet Ezekiel, a contemporary to Jeremiah, prophesied likewise:
Ezekiel 34:1-6 The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.
The God of heaven is the great Shepherd of Israel. As such, he is moved with compassion toward his covenant people. To see his people neglected and abused by the very under-shepherds who were charged with their care, grieves his heart greatly. This is enough to make those shepherds the enemies of the Lord.
Ezekiel 34:7-10 “Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: As I live, declares the Lord GOD, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.
Well, the Lord did judge Israel and their shepherds. They were carried away captive into Babylonian exile. They would pay the price for their unfaithfulness until the Lord, in his mercy, would permit them to return to their land.
The hope of this future return after exile was also a focus of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel. With their warnings of impending judgment also came hope-filled promises. They saw past the captivity and foresaw a time when the Lord would regather his people, like a shepherd regathers his flock. They foresaw a time when Israel would be rescued from captivity, just like a second Exodus. These promises revolved around a coming figure who would take up David’s throne and be the eternal shepherd-king.
Jeremiah 23:5-8 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’ “Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when they shall no longer say, ‘As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but ‘As the LORD lives who brought up and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ Then they shall dwell in their own land.”
When captivity did finally end, and that Exodus-like return did occur, it became apparent that there was much about the glorious restoration foretold by the prophets which remained yet unfulfilled. The rebuilt temple was nothing in comparison to Solomon’s grand temple; the hearts of the people were still distant from God; and there remained no promised Davidic king. Sadly, things did not improve by the end of the Old Testament record.
So, what about the promised Davidic king who would be the perfect shepherd, who would lead the flock of God’s covenant people perfectly and eternally? What about the promised second exodus which would not only see the people return to their land, but see the people return to God? Clearly the fullness of these things remained unfulfilled and stood as future promises. Let’s now turn to consider some of these promises.
God Will Shepherd His People
As the Lord lamented the failure of his under-shepherds, he made a stunning promise. He foretold a time when he would shepherd his people directly. He said through Ezekiel:
Ezekiel 34:11-14 “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel.
The Lord would regather his people and care for them directly. He would supply the provision, protection and guidance which they were denied by the wicked under-shepherds of the past. But how would the Lord do this? What exactly would his direct shepherding of his covenant people look like?
Interestingly, after describing how he would regather his scattered people from among the nations, and bring them into their own land, and unite them once again, the Lord says, “And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms.” (Eze 37:22)
Although the Lord has said that he will shepherd his people directly, he has also said that he will establish a king over the people. Who would this king be? How could his reign be seen as God’s direct rule? The Lord continues:
Ezekiel 37:24-28 “My servant David shall be king over them, and they shall all have one shepherd. They shall walk in my rules and be careful to obey my statutes. They shall dwell in the land that I gave to my servant Jacob, where your fathers lived. They and their children and their children’s children shall dwell there forever, and David my servant shall be their prince forever. I will make a covenant of peace with them. It shall be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will set them in their land and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in their midst forevermore. My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I am the LORD who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore.”
The promised descendant of King David will rule over a united Israel. This new arrangement will take place in the context of a new everlasting covenant in which God’s presence will dwell in the midst of his people, and they will continue in faithfulness as his people, forever.
This promised Davidic King will so perfectly execute his office as shepherd-king that the Lord can say that he himself will be shepherding his people. There will be no disconnect between the heavenly and the earthly shepherd. How could this be? It can only be explained by the incarnation of the Messiah. The Lord himself will shepherd his people, because the Lord himself, in the person of Jesus Christ would assume the throne of David, the archetypal shepherd-king.
Fittingly, when John the Baptist came on the scene to announce the arrival of the Messiah, he described himself as “a voice crying in the wilderness.” In doing so, John quoted the prophet Isaiah. In his chosen text, a voice cries in the wilderness alerting the people to the coming of the Lord. “Prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” he says. He continues:
Isaiah 40:9-11 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.
In quoting this, John presented himself as that voice crying in the wilderness announcing the coming of God. The obvious implication being that Jesus, whose arrival John was clearly announcing, was the fulfillment of this prophecy. Through Jesus, God had come to shepherd his people. Through Jesus “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”
Jesus was the promised Davidic descendant who would ascend David’s throne and rule forever. He was the perfect earthly shepherd-king who would shepherd God’s covenant people exactly as the Lord himself would shepherd. He could do this because in his coming, God himself had come. He was the great Shepherd of Israel, come in the flesh.
The people began to realize Jesus’ identity as the shepherd-king shortly after his birth. When the wise men came to inquire as to the location of the Messiah, the chief priests and scribes told Herod:
Matthew 2:5-6 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'”
In answering Herod, the chief priests and scribes alluded to Micah 5:4 which reads, “And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth.” The faithful shepherd who could gather in God’s wandering people had come. The one who could bring safety, satisfaction and rest to Israel had arrived. It is fitting then that Matthew presents the earthly ministry of Jesus to us in this way:
Matthew 9:35-36 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
The compassion of a loving shepherd is enflamed when he sees wandering sheep. So too was the compassion of Jesus enflamed when he looked upon the lost. In our next lesson we will explore more of the shepherd-like character of Jesus and learn that he has called and equipped others to share in the watchcare of his sheep.
In God’s providence he inspired the Bible to be written spanning a time period when shepherding was a common profession. It’s no wonder, since there remains no other metaphor which so aptly captures the relationship God has with his people, or which he calls his servants to have with his people as they exercise a delegated care over them.
The nature of God’s covenant people is such that they need leaders. They need individuals who will guide them into righteousness, protect them from spiritual predators, recover them when they stray, and otherwise exercise a persistent loving watchcare over them. They need leaders who will take up a delegated responsibility from God and lead his people, just as he would lead them. In other words, they need shepherds.
As you consider whether or not you desire, and are qualified for, the office of an elder, remember that an elder is called to be a shepherd. A tender heart, a quick compassion, a spirit of self-sacrifice, and a persistent vigilance are necessities.
Also remember that the Lord is the Shepherd of Israel and elders are merely his under-shepherds. To be an elder is to be a steward, not an owner. It is to be a loving overseer of the sheep, not a “lord over the flock.”
Further, consider that the Lord is opposed to those who claim to be the Lord’s under-shepherds only to use their position to benefit themselves. In other words, because the office bears tremendous responsibility, it also demands serious accountability.
Finally, as you continue to think over the Lord’s chosen metaphor of shepherd and sheep, remember that each of God’s under-shepherds is himself also a sheep. Before Jacob, Moses and David could shepherd God’s people, they each had to first recognize that they were sheep of God’s pasture, and he was their shepherd.